Suzanne Clothier - Trainers' Seminar

12 Apr 2006Steve Schwarz

I attended a Suzanne Clothier seminar this past weekend at Nancy Reyes’ For Your Canine facility in Schiller Park, IL. It was a three day seminar for professional dog trainers but, due to the demand, Suzanne allowed non-professionals, like myself, to attend. This was the first non-agility dog-related seminar I have attended and it gave me a new respect for dog trainer’s work. There is no way I can do this seminar justice, I’ll just try to give you a flavor.

Suzanne calls her approach “Relationship Based” training. I would summarize her approach as trying to achieve a mindful communication between a dog and his human. That may sound too Buddhist or “New Age” of an approach for some. But Suzanne is nothing if not firmly grounded. Suzanne has incredible depth of knowledge about dog behavior, interaction, structure, gait, illness, and training. She is also an incredibly talented observer of dogs and their handlers. As a presenter she is very engaging and, most importantly, she has a clear, well organized and integrated approach.

I became aware of Suzanne through her book Bones Would Rain From the Sky, Deepening Our Relationship with Our Dogs. I read it at a time when I really didn’t feel like I understood Milo and why he sometimes acts like he does. That book gave me a better understanding of how I am viewed by Milo and how I can help him better understand what I mean. Sometimes you read something at the right time in your life and it really strikes a chord; this was one of those occasions.

A question Suzanne asks is: “What if you were naked on a mountain with your dog what would you do then?“. What if you didn’t have your cookies, toys, leash, halter, clicker, or other favorite piece of training equipment? How then would you communicate with your dog? This question illustrates a key principle of her approach, when training and living with your dogs you are involved in a conversation. It isn’t just the one directional human presents a command and the dog responds. A real conversation involves listening to your partner.

One metaphor Suzanne used was to replace the word “dog” in any dog related question or problem with “child” or “parent” or “loved one”. She is not anthropomorphizing the dog by doing this. A dog is still a dog. But what she is saying is how would you want someone you love treated in that situation? (If you then think about all the training “tools” used to train dogs you wouldn’t be too happy to use some of them on a loved one).

Imagine going for a walk with your dog in a crowd, you might pull on the leash to direct your dog through the crowd. But if you were walking with a friend through the crowd you would likely communicate physically and verbally about where you were going next; you wouldn’t just pull them along. Yet people think nothing of just yanking their dog in a new direction without any warning. It would be just as easy to tell your dog, “hey, let’s go over here, let’s stop, etc.”. This thinking also plays into communicating with dogs who pull on their leash (sometimes it is just the handler not letting the dog know where to go next so the dog hits the end of the leash at each change of direction).

Dogs are not just a bunch of behaviors, they have an internal emotional state. Regardless of whether you believe dogs have the same feelings as humans; dogs can be confused, tired, enthusiastic, stubborn, etc. To live with a dog you need to acknowledge that emotional state in order to communicate successfully with that dog. For example, if you were taking a fearful “reactive” dog through that crowd, as his handler you need to have shown to that dog that they can trust your judgement to assess the situation and either get them out of provoking situations or protect them in those situations. Otherwise the dog accepts that they must take action in those stressful situations. Depending on the dog’s skills, that action may not be appropriate or might even be dangerous to the dog or others.

Communication involves both the dog and the handler. Dogs communicate with their handlers through their actions and their bodies. So it is critical that handlers learn to read the body postures and actions dogs use to express their inner emotional state. Suzanne also reminds us that dogs can learn to read our emotional states through the human manifestations of that state (breathing patterns, stance, facial expressions, etc.). But under stress dogs will tend to revert to reading our emotional states using a dog’s physical manifestations. So the direct facing inquisitive stare we might present could be read as something more obnoxious/challenging to a stressed dog.

Suzanne gave a great half day presentation on interpreting dog body language including many photos and video of dog-dog interaction. It was very enlightening. So by improving our ability to read our dog’s body postures we can “ask the dog” (by careful watching) what has their interest, how much interest, and judge their arousal level.

Suzanne has developed a technique for helping dogs understand you are aware of their situation called “Auto-Check Ins”. Once dogs learn to check in with you and you demonstrate action to assist them you’ve opened up a fundamental line of communication. If you are aware of what is capturing a dog’s attention and ramping them up you can get their attention before the dog takes action (even when the dog is expressing the very first signs of arousal).

The great thing about her Auto-Check In technique is its ease of training. Eventually every dog will look at you without prompting (obviously your start off in a low distraction environment) then you reward like crazy. Since this is a rewarded behavior the dog will find that checking in is “good for dogs”. So training the Auto-Check In is wonderfully straightforward. I love when trainers come up with clear, smart approaches like this. The trainer then works the Auto-Check In in many locations and situations with slightly increasing “difficulty” for the dog. As the dog comes to experience that you are aware of the stressful situations for them and you take charge they will start to automatically check in in those situations. Then you can take action before the dog has to. Just as you might “run interference” for a friend in some social situation.

Suzanne brought up dogs from the audience and she worked a number of short sessions with handlers whose dogs were people and dog reactive. The change in the dogs and handlers was really remarkable. Within minutes dogs that would be starting to get revved up were looking back to their handlers and being rewarded. The handler could then easily take the dog away from the provoking situation. With a little more work the dog was able to withstand the situation and remain and just check with the handler. The handlers also reported the next day that those dogs were checking in in previously provoking situations and the handlers were seeing continued improvement. I can’t describe how cool it was to see.

While I have focused on fearful/reactive dogs in this article, that was only a portion of this seminar. Suzanne’s breadth of knowledge allowed her to move her discussions in the directions needed by the participants. She identified one dog’s slowness/dislike of sitting in obedience to the stiffness of its rear end. So that led into a discussion of dog structure, gait, and the effect of illness on dog’s movements. But again it is all about watching the dog (asking it) and having it “tell you” what is going on.

A consequence of her approach is there are few “band aids” or concrete rules of the form “if you have this problem then do this”. I should also note, in case you think this is an approach only for the average dog, Suzanne is also known for successfully using this same approach with animals considered irredeemable or too dangerous to train.

Suzanne reads a wide range of scientific journals looking for any information that could possibly be applied to human and dog interaction. For others with her interests she mentioned she will be starting a subscription email newsletter in the near future containing those articles.

I left many concepts, examples, stories, and discussions out of this very brief seminar overview. But I hope I have given you an idea of her approach. My executive summary for all dog handlers and trainers, whether you are in agility or not, is to seek out Suzanne for any seminars or classes she is presenting. It will be an enlightening experience.

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